Although it has been around for almost twenty years, “Living Buddha, Living Christ” by Thich Nhat Hanh could not be more timely. If you have not read the book before, this is a good week to do it, since it is the week that we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King. Like King, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk from Viet Nam, devoted his life to working for world peace. Like King, he championed the poor and strove to educate and enlighten people. Also, Hanh and Martin Luther King had a warm rapport and held each other in high regard.
But Hanh’s relationship with King is not the only reason that this book is a timely read. For we have never needed its messages of hope, love and brotherhood more than we need it now. In spite of Hanh’s bitter experiences with Catholic Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc and his brother, President Ngo Dinh Diem, who together tried to evangelize Viet Nam by robbing the Vietnamese of their religious freedom, Hanh not only overcame his bitterness but eventually embraced the Christian faith, becoming a Catholic, while retaining his Buddhism. While Hanh admits that this merging would not be possible with all Buddhist sects, he himself is able to recognize and honor Buddha as his spiritual ancestor even as he enters into a relationship with Jesus Christ.
In no way can I begin to capture the wisdom and beauty of this simple yet profound little book in a summary. For Thich Nhat Hanh teaches much about both religions, as he compares them not in an analytical way but in an intensely personal way, acknowledging the differences but emphasizing the things that the two traditions have in common. Hanh notes that the mindfulness practiced by Buddhists is very much like the Holy Spirit. In his own words: “Both of them help us touch the ultimate dimension of reality. Mindfulness helps us touch nirvana, and the Holy Spirit offers us a door to the Trinity. . . .If we touch the Holy Spirit, we touch God not as a concept but as a living reality.”
As people mature in their own traditions, they are able to recognize the universal truths within other traditions. They are able to empathize with each other, and to build bridges of tolerance.
Hanh emphasizes the importance of dialogue, not only between people of different faiths, but between different traditions within the same faiths. He points out that when people look deeply into their own religious traditions they are able to determine what is authentic and what is dispensable dogma that obstructs people from genuinely experiencing the presence of God. As people mature in their own traditions, they are able to recognize the universal truths within other traditions. They are able to empathize with each other, and to build bridges of tolerance.
Hanh also demonstrates the similarities between the Five Wonderful Precepts of Buddhism and the Ten Commandments and teachings of Jesus. He points out that the precepts in Buddhism and the commandments in Judaism and Christianity “provide guidelines that can help us transform our suffering.” The Five Wonderful Precepts of Buddhism are (1) reverence for life (Thou shalt not kill), (2) generosity (Thou shalt not steal or covet), (3) responsible sexual behavior (Thou shalt not commit adultery), (4) speaking and listening deeply (Don’t use hurtful language–bear false witness, speak irreverently, gossip, etc.), and (5) ingesting only wholesome substances (Eat healthy, avoid gluttony, abstain from alcohol and other intoxicants.)
Throughout the book Hanh emphasizes the importance of meditation to heighten consciousness, to touch the ultimate dimension of enlightenment, in what he calls a “total and unconditional surrender to God.” Hanh distinguishes between the historical dimension and the ultimate dimension, but says that a spiritually enlightened person must live in both at the same time. He compares mindfulness and nirvana to what Christians call the Kingdom of God, meaning we live in the temporal and eternal worlds consciously, simultaneously. Hanh believes that if we can find peace and joy in ourselves by touching ultimate reality, or God, through meditating in our own cultural religious traditions, we have come a long way toward establishing peace and happiness in the larger world.